Tag Archives: Church

Why the Pew Survey Fails Before it Begins

Last week, Pew published the results of a survey on why Americans either go to church or stay home. A summery of the study, written by Jeremy Weber, appeared on Christianity Today’s website. A full write-up on the study can be found on the website for the Pew Forum.

In the study, Pew asked 4,729 people the reasons they either attend church or do not attend church. The full results are indeed interesting but not overly surprising. In the survey respondents were given possible reasons for attending or not attending church and they were asked to respond to each by ranking it “very important, somewhat important, or not important.”

Because the possible reasons were given, and the respondents simply had to rank each one, I don’t see anything too surprising in the findings. For example, the top three reasons that were given as “very important” reasons for not attending church:

I practice my faith in other way: 37%

I am not a believer: 28%

No reason is “very important”: 26%


Slightly more interesting were the reasons that church-goes listed as “very important” reasons that they do attend church. The top three included:

To become closer to God: 81%

So children will have moral foundation: 69%

To make me a better person: 68%


In fact what most shocked me about the survey wasn’t the results but the reasons that were given as choices- especially in the “Why I go to church” section of the survey. Out of the ten choices given, all ten could be argued as ego-centric. Meaning, they are all about “me.” They are all about what I get, how I feel, how it affects me and how it affects my family.

There are no reasons that point directly to glorifying God or serving others.

But that’s exactly what we see in the church in Act 2:42-47. The church in Jerusalem met together, they “went to church” in other words, for three reasons. I think we see these three reasons in these verses and I also think that these should (key word “should”) be the same reasons we continue to meet together as the church.

  1. They met together be grow closer to God. Here Acts and the Pew survey are in agreement. Acts 2:42 says that the believers devoted themselves “to the apostles’ teaching” (which means both hearing the teaching but also doing what was taught), “the breaking of bread” (which can be fellowship but also the fellowship of Communion), and “to prayer.” All of three are actions that help us grow closer to God. They were, and still are, reasons to go to church.
  2. They met together to glorify God. While this is second on the list, it is not second in importance. As Christians all parts of our lives should be lived to bring glory to God- attending church not excluded. In Acts 2:43 it says they were in awe and wonders and signs were taking place, which leads them in 2:47 to praise God. These early believers met together to praise and glorify God for the wonders and signs that were taking place and for the number of people coming to salvation day by day. Glorifying God should be the most important thing in our lives as Christians and should be the most important reason we gather together to as the church. However, nowhere in the Pew survey is glorifying God a possible reason for church attendance.
  3. They met together to serve. Verses 44-46 speak of the way that serving occurred in the Jerusalem church. They served one another, and I think it’s clear they also served those outside the church, by monetary support in times of need. They served one another, and, again, those outside the church through hospitality and joy. They served and loved one another in truly selfless ways. But in the Pew survey, there is nothing about serving. There is nothing about serving one another inside of the church as brothers and sisters in Christ and nothing about serving those outside of the church in the love of Christ.

This is why I think the Pew survey fails before it begins. The respondents were only able to rank the reasons given by the researchers. I hope the researchers were doing their best, but they missed the biblical reasons for meeting together as the church and therefore presented reasons that only reinforced the ego-centric model of modern Western Christianity.

Let us work to reject that ego-centric model that makes attending church and following Jesus all about me and return to the model of the early church. Then, perhaps, we will also see wonders and glorify God as we see people coming to salvation day after day.

When Following Leads to Opposition

Close-up of fire and flames on a black background (Huge file)

Current Sermon Series

I want to take this post to clarify/ elaborate on something I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday. In Acts 10-11, we read the account of Peter and Cornelius. Peter, a Jew, goes into the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, and preaches the message of Jesus to him and he and his family believe and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. This is an awesome event! God has opened the gospel to Gentiles.

But not everyone is happy. When Peter returns to Jerusalem, some of the leaders in the Jerusalem church are not pleased that Peter went to the house of, ate with and (presumably) shared Jesus with Gentiles. Peter obeyed God. Peter got to be a part of an amazing work of God. And when he got back to church, he faced opposition.

In my talk, which you can listen to here,  I said that if you want God to start a holy fire in you, then you will face opposition. In the talk I define “holy fire” as having a passion to know God, to know God’s movement in the world and a passion to be a part of that movement. If there’s a holy fire in you, there’s a chance that you’ll face opposition from some Christian-people, church-people, people who you would think would be the most excited about what God is doing. Where I want to clarify/ elaborate is why?

Why will you face opposition?

  1. You’ll face opposition because people don’t know the context. The church leaders in Jerusalem only heard part of the story. They didn’t know that God had spoken to Cornelius or that God had spoken to Peter. All they knew was that Peter had broken the social norms by associating with this Gentile, Roman military officer and his family. But when Peter explained everything, the whole story, and placed it in the context of Jesus’ words, the church leaders understood, changed their position and began glorifying God.
  2. You’ll face opposition because you’re different. Let’s be honest, for most  Christians and most people who attend church, God is not their utmost passion. God is a passion but not their utmost passion. God’s plans are not their utmost concern and being a part of God’s plan isn’t their utmost desire. There are a lot of other things that get in the way- some of them are good things but God’s desire is for us not to have anything before him. Being passionate about God (while it’s how we all should be) makes you different and when you’re different you’ll face opposition.
  3. You’ll face opposition because you’re making others uncomfortable. The Jewish-Christian church leaders were uncomfortable that Peter would go to the house of a Gentile because it broke a social taboo. For you and I,  opposition could come from those who think that talking to “him” or “her” or inviting “those” people to church is breaking a social taboo and it makes them uncomfortable.

Now that we have seen potential reasons why opposition could come our way if God has begun a holy fire in our lives, what can we do about the opposition. We’ll take each in turn.

  1. Don’t keep what God is doing in your life to yourself. God could be working in your life in very personal ways but be willing to let others know what God is teaching you. Let them know the context and the Scriptures that are speaking to you. This is important for two reasons. First, your pastors, small group leaders, friends can help you and encourage you. Two, you may inspire them to want to God to work in their life as well.
  2. Walking with God and putting God as the utmost thing in your life doesn’t make you different. It makes you exactly who God wants you to be.
  3. God’s way naturally challenges the status quo. In God’s kingdom the last are first and the first are last. Jesus didn’t come to save the righteous but the needy. In God’s kingdom, the poor are blessed, the gentle are blessed, the peacemakers are blessed. Read the Sermon on the Mount and see how God’s kingdom makes the status quo uncomfortable. Making people uncomfortable, if it’s for the sake of the gospel, is good- that’s how movements and revivals begin.

God wants us to be passionate about knowing him. God wants us to be passionate about what he’s doing in the world and passionate about how we can be a part of it. Sometimes that will bring opposition. But our faithfulness to God’s calling in our lives can lead, like those who opposed Peter, to change their hearts and glorify God because of the amazing things God has done.

A Must Read: A Review

9781101906422A must read!

There have been few books that have challenged me more than Tom Krattenmaker’s Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe (Convergent, 2016). Krattenmaker currently works as the communications director at Yale Divinity School and is a columnist for USA Today where he writes about religion in public life. He is not a Christian. Yet he tries to live by the teachings of Jesus. He professes the sentiment of many in today’s culture: “One can sense a respect for Jesus, even a fascination with him, despite the decline of institutionalized Christianity” (13-14).

Krattenmaker is a self-proclaimed secularist. He confesses, “I do not believe Jesus died for the forgiveness of my sins…nor do I believe that it is literally and factually true that Jesus was, and is, God- which is not surprising when you realize I am not convinced of the existence of God either” (9). What he is, is a man who wants to “engage Jesus without being Christian” and wants to create a space where “interested nonreligious people [can] do something that society and the religious affiliation categories would apparently forbid [them] to do: seriously follow Jesus. That is to say, to attempt, as much as it’s possible, to act as he did, to treat other people as he did, to understand life as he did” (11).

In the book, Krattenmaker takes current issues- religious polarization, sexuality, worry, over-incarceration, racial tensions- and tries to show how Jesus speaks into each of these issues. If we follow the teachings of Jesus, he argues, then we will begin to examine these issues from a new perspective and hopefully discover a better way of being human.

What makes this book challenging is that I’ve read “Christian” books that failed to do what Krattenmaker successfully does- let the words of Jesus speak into contemporary issues. He is able to convincingly argue that Jesus’ words and actions still matter in the 21st century. He’s completely right when he says, “there is something in this figure of Jesus that is challenging, compelling and worth taking to heart” (206).

Now, being a person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, who came to defeat sin and evil in his death and resurrection, I believe that Krattenmaker stands one or two steps short of fully understanding the message of Jesus. That being said, I believe he understands the message better than (sadly) many Christians. If others, through this book, discover the message of Jesus (even in a “secular” way), I am hopeful that as people try to live by the teachings of Jesus, and as they engage with the Bible (the place where those teachings are found) they will find themselves drawn to the God that Jesus represents.

Two weaknesses of the the book. First, there is some mild language throughout- somewhere between a PG and PG-13 rating. Second, Krattenmaker doesn’t fully answer the why question. Why would someone want to care about the plight of the incarcerated, love those unlike them, or care about what their sex life is doing to themselves and others? If this life is all there is, there is really no incentive for me to look out for anyone other than myself. Appealing to an altruistic side of humanity doesn’t work in the long term because there will always be those who will use it to gain power for themselves. Human beings are not inherently good, we are inherently selfish, greedy and violent. When left to ourselves, the result is always more Lord of the Flies than Shangri-La. But that reality is the message of Jesus. Jesus, God with us to do for us what we could not do for ourselves- namely, to save us from the sin and evil that are inside of us.

In the end, I’m glad that I read the book and if you are a pastor, minister, lay church leader then it is a must read. It will give you great insight into the mind of  the many people who are interested in Jesus but simply cannot understand the contradictions that appear to lay between Jesus and the Christian church. I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

The Church Can’t be a Scapegoat Anymore

For too long the Church has been a scapegoat. I’ve been guilty of this as much as anyone. Everything that has been or is wrong with Jesus followers is the Church’s fault. Writers and researchers tell us that people outside the Christian faith like the teachings and message of Jesus but they don’t like the teachings and message of the Church. Jesus teaches love, grace, forgiveness and countercultural ideals. The Church, on the other hand, teaches discrimination, guilt, fear and Christian- imperialistic ideals. They can get behind Jesus, but the Church- no so much.

And so we get categories like “spiritual but not religious” or “Jesus-follower” instead of Christian. There are even people like USA Today columnist Tom Krattenmaker who call themselves secular Jesus followers. I am currently reading Krattenmaker’s new book, Confession of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe (Convergent, 2016) and I’ll write a full review next week, but his main point is that “Jesus and Christianity are not one and the same” and that “one can sense a respect for Jesus, even a fascination with him, despite the decline of institutionalized Christianity” (13-14). It’s hard to argue that he’s wrong. Taking an objective look at the message of Jesus and (in too many cases) the message of the Church that bears Jesus’ name, it’s easy to see one is not a good reflection of the other.

What are we to do? Our M.O. has been to make the Church the scapegoat: the Church needs to change, the Church needs to reform, the Church needs to be dismantled and rebuilt.

Here’s where we have to reframe the conversation because the Church (and we know this) isn’t an organization or an organism within itself. We can’t go and find “the Church.” The Church is constructed of people. And the people that construct the Church are you and me. The harsh reality is that when people have a problem with the Church, they have a problem with you and me and the way we live out the message of Jesus that we claim to believe.


When people have a problem with the Church, they have a problem with you and me.


No longer can we make the Church the scapegoat for our laziness, for our spiritual immaturity, for our the way we have coopted the message of Jesus for our own gain or for our pure disobedience. I’m guilty of it, you’re guilty of it, we are all guilty of it. And we all need to change.

The Church can no longer be the scapegoat for our sins. Individually we need to refocus our lives on what Jesus said, what Jesus did, what Jesus taught and believing when Jesus said that those who love him will do what he’s said and live the way he lived. When we individually refocus then the Church and our local churches will naturally refocus. If we take Jesus seriously there shouldn’t be a reason for anyone to express the sentiment of Gandhi when he said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. You’re Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Are we ready to stop passing the blame and get serious about following Jesus?

Lots of Good, If Not Much New: Review of “The Great Spiritual Migration”

9781601427915When I saw that Brian McLaren had come out with another book, I immediately put it on my Amazon wish list. Naturally I was excited when I saw the opportunity to read and review the book for Blogging for Books. (I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.) I’ve read a good number of McLaren’s books over the years and I enjoy them- even if I don’t agree with everything he proposes. The great thing about McLaren is, however, that I don’t think he would want that anyway.

Perhaps it is because I have read a number of his books, that I found The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian to be full of good thoughts and ideas while not being particularly novel or new. In the book, McLaren proposes that Christianity needs to change (migrate) in three areas: 1. from being centered on correct belief to being center in love 2. from seeing God as a God of exclusion to a God of reconciliation and multi-ethnic expression 3. from the church being an organized institution to an organizing movement of change. These are all good observations but not unique to McLaren alone.

The negative first. In the opening section, McLaren argues that Christianity needs to migrate from being centered on correct belief to being centered in love. The reason for this re-centering on love is because God is love (1 John 4:8) and that central focus on love should be announced and ritualized (61-62). While I agree with his argument, what McLaren is actually doing is declaring that love is the correct belief of Christianity. “God is love” is a belief and by saying that it should be central is effectively arguing that it is the correct belief. He simply trades “correct” doctrines on God, salvation, ecclesiology, or whatever for a “correct” doctrine of love. I’m not saying he’s wrong (I think he’s right) but we need to be aware of what he’s actually proposing. What Christians do need to focus on is how their beliefs (doctrines) organized in creed, confessions or statements work in practice. For example, if we believe in God, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, how do I live that out on a day to day basis?

To the positive. McLaren is right when he sites that our world is faced with a four-fold crisis: ecological, economic, sociopolitical and spiritual and religious (166). What is amazing is that the Christian message speaks to all four of them. The main takeaway that I got from the book is that, as Christians, we need to step back from our local church problems and from our denominational problems and see that “the problems we need to solve are bigger that Lutheranism, Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism, or Catholicism. We have Christian problems…[and] ultimately, the problems we face are not just Christian problems, they are human problems” (145). And if the problems we face are human problems, ecological, economic, sociopolitical and religious, then Christians need to show how faith in the crucified and risen Jesus speaks to each of those problems. And how do we do that? McLaren rightly says it’s by doing to small things, the individual things and trusting that “God can get done through all of us what none of us can do alone” (198). When I do this, I’m not (and I love this line) “playing God, I’m playing with God, at play in God’s good world, where everything is holy” (198).

Overall I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to someone who was beginning to think about these issues for the first time. If you’re familiar with McLaren’s other books, The Great Spiritual Migration may not hold the wealth of new ideas that you hoped for.

A Fellowship of Holiness, Newness and Flourishing

9780310277675_1Over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at Scot McKnight’s book A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together (Zondervan, 2014). Last time we looked at the first three of six traits that McKnight says should define a diverse church. Those three traits were: grace, love and table. In this final post on this topic, we’ll look at the final three traits: holiness, newness and flourishing.

Holiness

“There are three elements to holiness. First, we don’t make ourselves holy; holiness is the inner work of God. Second, holiness means learning to live a life that avoids sin. Third, holiness means learning to live a life devoted to God” (118-119).

McKnight notes what Christian author and minister A.W. Tozer said, “the Christian life begins right where the Bible says it does- with God- and that the only path to holiness is time in God’s presence” (118). Not only is the church a group of people committed to one Lord, it is also a group of people committed to one end: holiness. Holiness should be the result of putting our faith into application in our lives.

Newness

“Everything about this early-church life was new for everyone. including Paul. They were trying out a new kind of community under a new Lord with new people around them with all kinds of new ideas about how to live under the new Spirit with new assignments and new gifts and new morals” (147).

Newness: New freedom, new faithfulness, new politics. As people within the Kingdom of God, we have the freedom to live as people of the Kingdom. We have a new way to be faithful to God because of God’s love and God’s grace. We have a new way to look at the world, a new politic.

Flourishing

“Twenty centuries of dismal disunity and the witness of a fractured church ought to convince us of our raw inability to be the church God wants us to be. The hope of this book is that that history will be reversed by a renewed commitment to be the church God designed, a church that flourishes in a salad bowl fellowship of differents” (191).

McKnight goes on the say that this flourishing can only take place through the work and power of the Holy Spirit. Which means that we can only flourish through the work and power of God, as God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, transforms our hearts individually and collectively.

McKnight’s book is well written, challenging and encouraging. It made me want to be a part of and to lead a church of differents and to see God take people from different backgrounds, social and economic classes and be united under one Lord. Not that they would be melted together into a homogeneous mass but that, like McKnight’s picture of a salad, the best of individual identity and giftedness contributes to the beauty and flavor of the whole. I encourage you to pick up this book.

A Fellowship of Grace, Love and Table

We need diverse churches but we also need churches that are diverse.

We’ve been looking into Scot McKnight’s book A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together (Zondervan, 2014). We’ve said that bringing differents together is one of the fundamental things that makes the church the church. We also talked about the tension that exists between the need for diverse churches, churches that reach specific people, culture and language groups, while maintaining churches that are diverse in bringing differents together under the Lordship of Jesus.

We left the last discussion with the question, how to we maintain or become churches that are diverse? In his book, McKnight proposes six traits that characterize a fellowship of differents. These six traits will guide the discussion as we look at three in this post and three in the next post.

The first three traits McKnight mention are grace, love and table.

Grace

“Grace takes lonely people and gives them friendship with God. Grace takes our longings for love and ushers us into the presence of God. Grace transforms our yearnings for significance into gifts of significance. God’s grace speaks to us when we are alone and draws us into fellowship with God and with others” (42).

It’s not only God’s grace that saves us, it’s God’s grace that transforms us. It’s God’s grace that weaves people who are different, at one time hostile toward God and, perhaps, hostile toward each other and makes them into a family. Differents come together through grace.

Love

“For Paul, love is central. It was central because he knew the challenges of the Christian life for those who were in fellowship with one another in house churches dotting the Roman Empire. The only way they would make it is if each person learned to love the others” (52).

If that was true for Paul, how much more is it true for us? Just like churches in the first century, we still have to learn to love each other. It’s not something that we learn once, it’s something we have to continually learn, relearn and practice.

Table

“Against this background [the culture of status in the Roman Empire], the fathering of the Christians reconstructed everything from the bottom up: everyone was welcome, everyone got the same meal, everyone was equal, and everyone had one Lord, King Jesus. At the new family’s table they were one” (99).

McKnight is speaking here of Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. If status was a big deal in the Roman Empire, it remains a big deal in 2016 as well. So much of our lives is defined by what kinds of things we can afford. It defines what we eat, where we go to shop, who our friends are, what we do for fun and what we post on Facebook. As McKnight says, we need to rediscover the equality and unity within the act of Communion.

McKnight believes, and I think rightly, that if we can rediscover these traits, our churches will naturally begin to become more and more diverse. Differents will know that our churches are places of grace, love and equality.

We’ll look at the other three traits next time.